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Labour has infused politics with youth – but the established order is not overthrown

The British system exhibits a curious mix of stasis and turbulence.

Shortly after the House of Commons reassembled in March 1974 to hear the Queen’s Speech of Harold Wilson’s minority Labour government, the BBC broadcast Penda’s Fen, a remarkable television drama written by a novice playwright, David Rudkin. The play depicts the adolescent awakening of an adopted son of a vicar in rural Worcestershire. His settled life, structured by established orders of family, faith, patriotism and sexuality, is steadily unstitched in a series of mysterious apparitions and visionary encounters.

Angels and demons, a naked schoolmate, Edward Elgar, and finally King Penda himself, the last of the pagan Anglo-Saxon warrior kings of Mercia, all cross his path as he comes to a new awareness of the hybridity of his identity. It is a ponderous but mesmerising play that digs down through the sedimented hierarchies of 1970s England, into the shifting terrains of a more unsettled, conflictual but ultimately liberating history.

Rudkin’s play evokes the dislocations of the mid-1970s, when the sense of a crisis in the post-war political and economic order was widespread. Post-war Keynesianism was collapsing. Authoritarian, racist and New Right political discourses were competing to take its place, but so too were the new social movements of feminism, green politics and gay liberation. Penda’s Fen spoke to this complex assemblage of social and political forces, and its contemporary resonance resides precisely in the clear echoes of that era in the politics of 2017: a country uncertain of its future, with no political party yet capable of achieving ascendancy, but exhibiting palpable public awareness that significant economic and political change is needed. “Nothing has changed! Nothing has changed,” claimed Theresa May after her election campaign social care U-turn, triggering a collapse in her public standing and her party’s poll lead. It was as hallucinatory as anything in Penda’s Fen.

The Prime Minister’s attempt to solidify a new national consensus behind her leadership and Brexit prospectus took on a distinctly authoritarian tone at the onset of the election campaign. She claimed to give expression to a popular will that was being thwarted by illegitimate parliamentary opposition. But her project was broken on the consolidation of powerful new cleavages in the British electorate.

First and foremost was a demographic one. Labour hoovered up the support of the under 45s, while the Conservatives entrenched their lead among older voters – a trend that has been in play for a number of years, but which Jeremy Corbyn appears to have accelerated. This sharpening of the age divide in British politics has complicated the electoral politics of social class.

Labour has established complete supremacy among the young, multicultural working class (of which Grime4Corbyn is culturally symbolic), and significantly extended its support among the middle classes. But it has lost a large chunk of its older working class support to the Conservatives, so that the overall class divide between the parties has narrowed. These effects are geographically uneven, with Labour doing exceptionally well in Wales, London and other metropolitan centres, but losing ground in parts of the Midlands and the North. Scottish politics remain overlaid by the national question, complicating the story still further.

The apparent return of the two party system masks the volatility of this electorate. In 2015, the British Election Study showed that nearly 40 per cent of the electorate had voted for a different party at the previous election, compared to around 10 per cent in 1966, when voting class blocs were still highly structured by industrial society. The 21st century electorate is more fickle and less tribal in its loyalties, and politics is more uncertain as a consequence. Specific conjunctural factors were also important in 2017. Brexit undoubtedly motivated liberal professionals to support Labour, despite the party’s calculated ambiguity on the issue, while it effectively neutered two of Labour’s biggest recent weaknesses, on immigration and economic credibility.

For their part, the Liberal Democrats were still being punished for their role in the coalition government, while Ukip’s collapse enabled a one-off redistribution of millions of votes. Meanwhile, the fatal combination of toxicity and banality in the Conservative campaign, coupled with Corbyn’s energetic reassertion of social democratic values, steered many former Labour supporters back into the fold. As none of these factors can simply be repeated, however, neither of the two main parties can assume solidity in their electoral coalitions. Each has cross-class support but lacks the inter-generational alliances that would secure dominance.

Ideologically, Labour’s direction is now firmly set by the Corbyn leadership. All that is now at stake is the pace at which it develops, and how far the Corbyn project reaches out across the party and beyond, rather than consolidating around sectarian positions. Labour’s manifesto mixed a restoration of the pre-Thatcherite status quo on public ownership with a defence of New Labour’s most popular tax-and-spend policies, such as education maintenance allowances and children’s centres, and a rejection of others, such as tuition fees. It left untouched Conservative cuts to tax credits for low income families but pledged sweeping progressive taxation and public spending reforms. It was both defensive and bold, enabling the party to unite around an offer to tackle austerity and wage stagnation, without giving many clues as to the future of the left. It promised a better yesterday, owing as much to the Attlee settlement as to any post-capitalist prospectus.

In contrast to Labour, it is the future of conservatism that is now uncertain. The election result has ended Theresa May’s emergent project of coupling Euroscepticism with the party’s One Nation interventionist traditions. The Conservative manifesto’s soft economic nationalist and Burkean rhetoric excited more interest than the substance warranted, but May had begun to sketch a reorientation of Conservative politics for a post-austerity, Brexit era. Her electoral humiliation, and the forced departure of her chief ideologue, Nick Timothy, have finished that off. Conservatives seeking a more centrist path back to younger voters will not stray far from from economic and cultural liberalism.

The election result also dealt a fatal blow to the “no deal” Brexit agenda of reinventing the UK as an offshore, low tax and low regulation “world island”. The ambitions for a buccaneering Global Britain are left hanging on whether the UK will eventually leave the EU customs union and the single market, after what will now likely be a long transition period. Lacking a stable parliamentary majority of their own for a hard Brexit, the Conservatives are dependent on a residual Bennite Euroscepticism in the Labour leadership to secure majority support for quitting the single market. It is an irony of history that a reinvention of the 1975 alliance between the socialist left and the Eurosceptic right might yet determine the course of Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU.

Nonetheless, public hostility to further cuts to the state, and the destruction of the post-war public realm – symbolised so horrifically by the fire at Grenfell Tower – mark out an exhaustion of post-Thatcherite conservatism. Neoliberal commentators are casting around for ideas but the energy has drained from their politics. Although the Treasury will not suddenly pivot to fiscal plenitude in the autumn Budget, there is no political mileage left in cutting taxes, public services and the welfare state.

Read more: Philip Collins on the strange rebirth of the Labour Party

Like the US, British politics exhibits a curious mix of stasis and turbulence. The political momentum rests with Labour but it faces an adversary with strong survival instincts, dug in behind deep electoral trenches. Neither party looks capable of decisive, overwhelming victory. Despite the SNP’s tactical retreat on a second independence referendum, the territorial politics of the Union remain febrile as a result of the government’s deal with the DUP. Like the elderly but potent King Penda, Corbyn has infused politics with a spirit of youthful resistance, but the established order is not overthrown.

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania

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Ann Summers can’t claim to empower women when it is teaming up with Pornhub

This is not about mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century. The store claims to be “sexy, daring, provocative and naughty”, and somewhat predictably positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

And yet, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as being particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity. This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as  “illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive” will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest and rape with some of the more easily published film titles including “Exploited Teen Asia” (236 million views) and “How to sexually harass your secretary properly” (10.5 million views.)  With campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like Teen Vogue offer girls tips on receiving anal sex, while advice on pleasuring women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year that largely female audiences queued to watch Fifty Shades Darker, a survey revealed that 20 per cent of U.S. women have never masturbated. It is an odd truth that in our apparently open society, any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal. 

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film. Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be considered abuse. Pornography is not only misogynistic, but the tropes and language are often also racist. In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then again, Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market. This won’t make me popular, but it is worth remembering feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which choices are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.  

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences. That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps, as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four-in-ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme. For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter. Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?